On 2 December 2011, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – a federation of seven independent emirates – marked the 40th anniversary of its formation, which followed the withdrawal of the British from the Gulf.

The origins of the country lie in a truce signed in 1820 between nine Arab sheikhdoms in the area. Called the General Treaty of Peace, the agreement was imposed by the British, who were keen to exploit the trade passage through the Gulf to India. As a result of the growing trade relationship with India, the British looked to obtain dominance over the region and bring an end to piracy in the area. Fights between the British and the powerful Qawasim, a maritime tribe based in Ras al-Khaimah and Sharjah, had been frequent and after decades of unrest, a major offensive by the UK in 1819 led to the destruction of the Qawasim fleet and the occupation of its main ports, paving the way for the new treaty.

By 1853, an agreement was reached allowing for British arbitration of disputes among the sheikhs. The territory it concerned came to be known as the Trucial Coast, a name it retained until 1971. The subsequent years of peace allowed its pearl industry to flourish. It is estimated that by the turn of the 20th century, 4,500 boats manned by 30,000 men were owned and operated by the sheikhdoms. Historian Richard Le Baron Bowen says the industry was valued at $1.5m at its peak in 1896, with approximately 70,000-80,000 workers.

Arabian pearls were traded worldwide, mainly through India and Europe, but their worth began to decline in the 1920s when Japanese cultured pearls entered the market. The industry was further hit by a fall in demand due to the Great Depression, which began in 1929, and the Second World War. By 1949, Le Baron Bowen estimates, only 530 pearl boats remained and the value of the industry had fallen to $200,000.

Throughout the 1930s, the world’s oil exploration giants turned their attention from Iraq to the lower Gulf. By 1939, Petroleum Development (Trucial Coast), made up of the UK’s BP, Anglo/Dutch Shell Group, France’s Total, ExxonMobil of the US and Partex of Portugal, had signed an exploration agreement with Abu Dhabi, drilling the first well at Ras Sadr in the northeast of the emirate in 1951. The first traces of hydrocarbons were discovered in the Bab field in 1954. Offshore exploration had also begun under BP subsidiary Abu Dhabi Marine Areas, and in 1958 enormous quantities of oil were discovered at Umm Shaif, which went into production in 1962. Once oil was discovered, it was necessary to determine the boundaries of the separate sheikhdoms to prevent each ruler laying claim to his neighbour’s territory. Eventually, the borders of the seven emirates that constitute the present-day UAE were drawn.

With the pearling industry in decline, the Trucial states began exploring other trading options. During the 1950s and 1960s, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al-Maktoum – first as regent, then as ruler of Dubai – developed shipping facilities along Dubai Creek, the first steps in establishing the emirate as a centre of regional trade and logistics.

Just as the energy industry began to take off in the Trucial states, the British announced their withdrawal from the area. The ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, acted fast in a bid to strengthen the ties between the states, calling for a new federation that also included Qatar and Bahrain. Initially, an agreement was only reached between the six rulers of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman, Sharjah, Umm al-Quwain and Fujairah, and on 2 December 1971 the UAE was formed. Further negotiations ensued and Ras al-Khaimah joined the federation two months later. Qatar and Bahrain elected not to join, in part due to the distance between the territories.

The UAE is a member of the UN, the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a six-member economic, political and military grouping formed in 1981, which also includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar.

Government structure

The Federal Supreme Council is the UAE’s chief decision-making body and is responsible for matters relating to foreign affairs and defence. The Supreme Council has both legislative and executive powers. It ratifies federal laws and drives policy.

The council comprises the rulers of the seven emirates, who elect a president and vice-president from among themselves for a five-year renewable term. Each emirate has a single vote in the deliberations of the council. Decisions on substantive matters are made by a majority of five of its members, provided this includes the votes of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Decisions on procedural matters need a majority vote.

The president appoints the prime minister, who heads the UAE cabinet, officially titled the Council of Ministers. The prime minister proposes a list of ministers, which is then ratified by the president. The cabinet is formed of the heads of the government ministries and currently consists of 21 members. It has executive authority to initiate and implement laws. It is a consultative assembly that can discuss and recommend government policy, but has no power of veto. The cabinet draws up the UAE’s annual budget.

Alongside the cabinet sits the 40-member Federal National Council (FNC). Previously, all members were nominated, but as part of a gradual reform process, the government allowed half the members to be elected in 2007. The electoral pool was small, however, with just 7,000 people allowed to vote. This was opened up to 129,000 voters in September 2011.

The make-up of the FNC is proportionate to the size of each emirate’s population. Abu Dhabi and Dubai each has eight members, Sharjah and Ras al-Khaimah have six and the smaller emirates occupy four seats each. Each emirate is free to determine the method by which it selects its representatives. The role of the FNC is as an advisory group, particularly on legislative matters. All draft laws have to pass through the FNC for discussion.

The final federal body specified in the UAE’s constitution is the Federal Judiciary, which consists of the Federal Supreme Court, the Federal Appeals Court and the Courts of First Instance. The Supreme Court consists of five judges appointed by the Supreme Council. These judges arbitrate between federal and emirate issues and also decide on the constitutionality of proposed laws.

The country’s president and leader of the Supreme Council has always been the ruler of Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s biggest and wealthiest emirate. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan was president of the UAE from 1971 to 2004. He was succeeded by his son Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who holds the role today. His brother, General Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan is the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the Armed Forces of the UAE. The prime minister is the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, who succeeded his brother Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid al-Maktoum in January 2006. He is also the vice-president of the UAE.

The seven emirates have considerable autonomy over their respective internal affairs. Although legislation is set at a federal level, the rulers also issue decrees at an emirate level, which then become local laws. Differences between laws in the various emirates can have a profound impact on the fabric of life and business in the UAE. Each ruler is supported by an Executive Council, a cabinet through which the emirate’s affairs are managed.

The UAE Supreme Council

  • President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan Ruler of Abu Dhabi
  • Vice-President and Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum Ruler of Dubai
  • Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed al-Qasimi Ruler of Sharjah
  • Sheikh Saud bin Saqr al-Qasimi Ruler of Ras al-Khaimah
  • Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed al-Sharqi Ruler of Fujairah
  • Sheikh Saud bin Rashid al-Mualla Ruler of Umm al-Quwain
  • Sheikh Humaid bin Rashid al-Nuaimi Ruler of Ajman